PRESS ON! is a series of interviews with publishers who are pushing the boundaries of the books industry.
Feminist Press is a nonprofit publisher based in New York City. Established in 1970 by the late author and scholar Florence Howe, today Feminist Press publishes over a dozen books a year across genres, from activist nonfiction to translated novels. We talked to senior editor Lauren Rosemary Hook about the press’s long history and exciting recent releases, including La Bastarda (2018) by Trifonia Melibea Obono, the first novel by an Equatoguinean woman author to be published in English, in Lawrence Schimel‘s translation from the Spanish.
How long have you been the senior editor at Feminist Press and how did you get there?
I’ve been at Feminist Press for six years now, which is really incredible to think about. I started as an intern and I worked my way up over the years under great mentorships from folks such as Julia Berner-Tobin, Jeanann Pannasch, and Jennifer Baumgardner, the former Feminist Press director who hired me. I think it’s a really great example of how seriously we take our internships — or now, our apprenticeship program — and how we like to cultivate a familiar kind of environment among the staff and anyone who gets involved at Feminist Press. And we really do keep folks in mind for future positions, so there’s a lot of opportunity for growth at the press. Oftentimes at smaller independent presses, there isn’t much upward mobility, so it’s been exciting to not only start my career in publishing at Feminist Press but to also grow. Now, I feel like I have a robust network internationally and domestically, and I’m excited to be representing the press in a larger capacity.
How is Feminist Press structured?
There are currently six of us full-time and one part-time staffer.
We started as a crucial publishing component of second-wave feminism. Our founder Florence Howe was an English professor [and] was wanting to provide more literary texts by women to be studied in the classroom … Many of those writers are household names today but had fallen out of print and didn’t have the notoriety, and weren’t on the high school curriculum across the country like they are today.
How would you describe the core ethos of Feminist Press?
We’re a mission-oriented press so I’m just going to take a minute to read our mission statement because it really does ground every choice that we make, whether it’s a hire, an acquisition, or strategic plan, what have you! “The Feminist Press publishes books that ignite movements and social transformation. Celebrating our legacy” — we actually turned fifty this year — “we lift up insurgent and marginalized voices from around the world to build a more just future.”
We were founded in 1970 and we’re excited to be around, still independent, fifty years after our founding, even though we’ll all admit this isn’t the 2020 we had been planning for. We’re always looking to publish books that speak to the present moment and beyond, and provide nuanced takes on gender and sexuality issues, to move the feminist conversation forward. We’re not interested in being prescriptive. We’re interested in sparking dialogue and conversation.
How has Feminist Press evolved since its inception in 1970?
We started as a crucial publishing component of second-wave feminism. Our founder Florence Howe was an English professor at Goucher College and was wanting to provide more literary texts by women to be studied in the classroom, as part of the Women’s Studies movement that was just getting started at the time. Many of those writers are household names today –– Zora Neale Hurston, Paule Marshall, Rebecca Harding Davis –– but had fallen out of print and didn’t have the notoriety, and weren’t on the high school curriculum across the country like they are today.
So Feminist Press started by basically interrogating the canon of American classics, though I have to say, Florence’s vision has always had a very international scope. She always wanted to publish books from around the world and you can see that with the Women Writing Africa series, as well as with books like Changes by Ama Ata Aidoo, Still Alive by Ruth Kluger, and Women Without Men by Shahrnush Parsipur.
I feel very lucky to be able to expand upon this foundation that Florence built. Today, we do continue to reissue backlist classics to reintroduce those texts to a new generation of readers, but the majority of our list is contemporary, cutting-edge fiction and nonfiction. We pride ourselves on being a vanguard of publishing feminist, often hybrid, texts. We are a trade publisher, not an academic press, so we want all of our texts to be accessible.
Oftentimes we are able to take on books that other publishers potentially would pass on for not being as financially viable. As a nonprofit, the mission comes first, and grants and donations are integral to this kind of publishing model.
You mentioned you are a trade publisher, but you are also a nonprofit. Can you talk a bit more about how that works?
We are a “501 C3 nonprofit publisher” and what that means is that we have income coming in from book sales and we can also rely on grants and donations. This gives us flexibility to publish mission-driven books not solely based on the bottom line. So oftentimes we are able to take on books that other publishers potentially would pass on for not being as financially viable. As a nonprofit, the mission comes first, and grants and donations are integral to this kind of publishing model.
Why are you based in City University of New York (CUNY)?
We’ve all been working from home since March, but FP’s offices are based in the CUNY Graduate Center in midtown Manhattan. FP has been housed within CUNY since 1985, a relationship that our founder Florence secured. So our offices are based there and we have access to services such as a mail room, and in exchange, we put CUNY’s branding on our publications since CUNY doesn’t have a press. But we are independent in terms of our content generation.
We have a very open and democratic acquisition process. Editorial meetings are not hush-hush, they’re not closed door, and we really involve everyone on staff. That’s everyone from our executive director to our interns … This is something I really love about the press that’s exciting and unique, I would say, in publishing at large.
I read that Feminist Press publishes 12-15 books per year. What does the decision-making process over acquisitions look like?
Excitingly, Feminist Press does accept unsolicited submissions. I think that’s a really important part of our mission in terms of interrogating the gate-keeping models at work within the publishing industry. We want to be accessible to anyone.
Obviously, we also work with agents and the networks that our authors bring to the table. We have a very open and democratic acquisition process. Editorial meetings are not hush-hush, they’re not closed door, and we really involve everyone on staff. That’s everyone from our executive director to our interns or apprentices in a given semester. We are pitched so many amazing and important texts, so when considering acquiring a book we ask questions such as: How does this tie into our mission? Is this something we can do well? And what are the kinds of books we might be missing?
So editors such as myself bring a project forward that they’re just head over heels in love with, pitch that to the whole team, and then we have a discussion about it. I have my marketing and publicity colleagues asking me questions and weighing in, I have development colleagues that are writing our grants thinking of opportunities around the book. I get more knee-jerk reactions from interns or apprentices, folks that oftentimes represent who our readers are and maybe aren’t as familiar with the backend of publishing. This is something I really love about the press that’s exciting and unique, I would say, in publishing at large.
It’s essential that we’re a nonprofit to be able to champion so many works in translation as a small press because they can be quite costly; not only is a publisher paying a fee to acquire rights to publish a title, there’s also the translation fee. So translations are labors of love but they’re also so important and essential works of literature.
What percentage of Feminist Press publications are works in translation?
I’m proud of our translation program and that’s really the reason why I wanted to get into the publishing industry in the first place. I wanted to work with international literature, I wanted to help bring more of it into English, I wanted to help dispel all of these stereotypes that Americans have about certain parts of the world, and by publishing these books, hopefully build bridges and forge connection. That was my inspiration for getting into publishing, so when I found an opportunity at Feminist Press combining my passion for gender-based activism and great works of literature from around the world, I honestly found my dream job.
I got my start in acquisitions specifically championing works in translation –– mostly fiction –– and as I’ve acquired more responsibility over time, I’ve wanted to expand that program at the press. So when I was hired, we were doing about one book in translation a year, and many of those texts in the years leading up to my being hired were by white French authors. Great, amazing feminist authors who we are proud to have on our list, but the world’s a big place! There are so many different languages, cultures, and perspectives, and I think it’s our mission and our duty as Feminist Press to dig deeper and champion works that go beyond what folks typically think of as “international literature.”
So I’m really excited to say, a few years in, that we’re doing two to three works in translation a year instead of just one. Books from Thailand, Ecuador, Croatia, Uruguay, Equatorial Guinea, and beyond. That’s thanks to a lot of the amazing translators I’ve met who are always bringing the coolest books to me. I really do believe that they are the best advocates and I view them as experts in the field. I also think it’s essential that we’re a nonprofit to be able to champion so many works in translation as a small press because they can be quite costly; not only is a publisher paying a fee to acquire rights to publish a title, there’s also the translation fee. So translations are labors of love but they’re also so important and essential works of literature. Having the availability to secure grant funding helps make publishing them more viable for us.
How did you come across La Bastarda in Lawrence Schimel’s translation and decide to put it out there?
This is a great book to talk about, it has a wonderful backstory and shows how translators really are the best advocates of international works of literature. Lawrence Schimel is someone I’ve known for years. He’s a publishing veteran: he’s a poet, he runs his own press, he’s a children’s book writer and translator, he translates works of adult fiction and nonfiction as well, he’s a powerhouse and has many publications under his belt. He has the same mission that Project Plume does: he’s really wanting to champion writers from often marginalized or overlooked backgrounds.
It’s funny to talk about this in 2020 –– we were meeting at the Frankfurt Book Fair in 2016. We were perched on the side of some other publisher’s booth, we both had these big backpacks, it was totally casual, and he pulled out this slim novel in Spanish called La Bastarda. And he’s like, “This is the book for you and we need to publish this.” He started to pitch and told me about the author, Trifonia Melibea Obono, and how there is no representation of women writers from Equatorial Guinea in English, let alone lesbian romance coming-of-age stories that take place in a Fang village.
I read the book on the plane ride home and I just knew, based on FP’s mission, that it was a no brainer for us to publish. Lawrence put me in touch with the publisher and eventually with the author, and we got started on the book’s translation. We actually had Melibea come to New York in 2018 for the book’s launch and for the PEN World Voices festival, and I feel so honored to have been able to meet her. She’s an incredible author, artist, and activist who is fighting for equality in her country and around the world.
How was the pandemic affected publishing activities at Feminist Press?
It’s been a wild ride of a year, and I’m sure every publisher would answer this question differently, but like I mentioned, we’ve been working from home since March and haven’t had access to our offices. So that has affected us on various levels: we’ve had to relearn and rethink a lot of our processes. But luckily, we were already making use of online platforms like Slack and Dropbox. And in terms of creating a virtual office, we’re using Zoom way too much like everyone else!
It was difficult in the spring because we were worried that many of our printers might close depending on where they in the US were based. So for example, the printer of our galleys is based in New York and since they were shut down for several months, we switched to digital e-galleys.
But our offset printers are based in the Midwest and did stay open throughout the pandemic. We ended up keeping all of our publication dates this year as scheduled. For example, Juli Delgado Lopera’s debut novel Fiebre Tropical –– which features a lot of Spanglish, so anyone who is interested in language should totally check it out –– came out in March just as everything was escalating. They were so agile and creative around making the switch to this virtual Zoom landscape in order to promote the book, whether it’s via Instagram Live, Crowdcast, partnering with indie bookstores, what have you. And we have been trying to adapt as well, whether it’s crowdsourcing with indie publishers about what’s working best for them and also thinking what makes the most sense for us as an organization.
Things have also shifted some with our book sales. Normally we would be able to fulfill orders through our website from our office, but since we’re remote, our distributor has been doing direct fulfillment on those orders. We’ve also been working with Bookshop.org and in general trying a lot of new things. At the end of the day, we’re hopeful that we can come out of this with some new, more efficient and creative strategies for how to best run the press.
You mentioned crowdsourcing with indie publishers. Would you say there is a big community support among presses during this time?
I’m thinking specifically of a couple of organizations that have facilitated this. One of them is The Community of Literary Magazines and Presses (CLMP) and also the Independent Publishers Caucus (IPC). These sessions are still going, but I feel like they were most urgent throughout the spring. We’d have Zoom calls every Friday that they would facilitate to bring everyone together and check in. We could just ask, “How are your sales doing? How are your printers?” and have these candid conversations with each other. We also discussed how publishers could help booksellers during the pandemic, considering the precarity of their labor and all of the closures earlier (and ongoing) this year. These meetings have been a really great forum for emotional support and also for workshopping concrete issues that we’re all facing as publishers.
What’s next for Feminist Press?
I’d love to talk about a book we published in October: Grieving: Dispatches from a Wounded Country (2020) by Cristina Rivera Garza, an amazing Mexican writer who is based in Texas. This is an essay collection translated by Sarah Booker compiling Cristina’s writing from 2004 to the present, featuring personal essays, journalism, even poetry. All the pieces in the book speak to Mexico and the systemic violence that’s a consequence of the war on drugs, and specifically how writing is a way to cultivate social justice and community healing. The book originally came out in Spanish in 2010 so it’s been a really interesting process working with Sarah and Cristina cutting old pieces and adding new pieces of writing. And I tell you, we acquired this book at the start of 2019, pre-pandemic, and it’s just fascinating to see how relevant so much of the writing still is and also how hopeful it is in this dark time we’re living in. The book has a reputation for being a cult classic in Mexico, and then for it to be translated and to come out on the other side of the border a decade later and to still have so much resonance, it’s just incredible. And to top it all off, Cristina was named a MacArthur Fellow on the book’s pub date! … I think it will do really well for us and I hope it finds a wide readership.
Another title I’d love to highlight is a book we’re publishing this spring entitled Black Box: The Memoir That Sparked Japan’s #Metoo Movement by Shiori Ito, translated by Alison Markin Powell, which we’ll be publishing simultaneously with Tilted Axis in the UK. Shiori is one of the first women to come out about sexual assault in Japan and she published a book about how horrific her experiences with the justice system were, and her constant fight to amend and ratify all of these laws so that nobody else has to stay silent in the face of assault and rape. She was named one of Time’s most influential people of 2020 so we’re really excited about finally bringing her story into English. I think her star will only continue to rise.
Interview by Salwa Benaissa